SI's Tom Verducci goes along for a ride with Pete Rose as baseball's banished hit king travels from Las Vegas to Los Angeles.
This story appears in the July 20, 2015 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe to the magazine, click here
Charlie wants to hustle. "Didja eat? Want something here or to take with you?" I am fluent in two languages: English and body. I listen, and I read. Pete Rose is sitting on the edge of his seat, elbows on the table in front of him, hands folded under his chin, at The Blind Pig, a pub in Las Vegas. I am five minutes late, on account of a cabbie who couldn't find the place.
“No, I’m good.”
“Sure? Water? Something to drink? It’s four hours.”
Rose is out of his chair, headed out the door and into the blast furnace of Vegas at midday in summer.
Pete Rose is older than you think, having never acquired the pleasing patina of age that we associate with grandfathers. He is 74. He is so old that on the day he was born in 1941, to Harry and LaVerne Rose in Cincinnati, FDR threw out the Opening Day first pitch in Washington, and Adolf Hitler was featured on the cover of Time.
Rose is also older than you think because his public persona barely has evolved. He is famous for the way he played baseball (headlong) and the way he left it (headlong, too, as the only man alive on baseball’s permanently ineligible list). He hasn’t run the bases in 29 years, but he’s still Charlie Hustle, playing his role with a longevity more impressive than John Gielgud’s as Hamlet. (The great thespian played the young prince more than 500 times between ages 26 and 44.)
Charlie can’t actually hustle, though, at least not afoot. The years have thickened him like an oak, and the famous bantam bounce in his step has been replaced by something that resembles the back-and-forth sloshing of water in a hand-carried bucket. He is wearing clothes for comfort: lounge pants, a track jacket and a white-on-white Reds cap. Clusters of hair the color of licorice jut from under the cap.
I follow him to the parking lot. Which car? The 2014 black Bentley Flying Spur, of course.
For the next four hours it’s just Rose and me in the Bentley. All that stands between Vegas and Santa Clarita, Calif., in Los Angeles County, are 267 miles of roadway and the truth. There will be a stretch of highway that is notoriously hellish. The truth sometimes will seem even more difficult to navigate.
“America is known for giving second chances,” Rose says.
“When do you get yours?”
“I don’t know. It may never come. But if it does, I’ll be the happiest guy in the world, because I know what I stood for as a player. Even though I f---ed up, I respected the game. That’s why I played like I did.”
Loved or loathed, Pete Rose is a uniquely American institution, not like Mount Rushmore or the Grand Canyon but more like Branson, Mo., Coney Island, Cadillac Ranch, the World’s Largest Ball of Twine, and, yes, Vegas, baby. They are melting pots of kitsch, entertainment and the narratives we affix to them, in the way a child draws in a coloring book. Here’s the outline; make of it what you will.
Rose signed out of high school with his hometown team, and without much size, speed or strength he became the all-time hit king, played in more winning games than any other ballplayer and played every game as if it were his last. The effort in Rose defined him even more than the results, endearing him to a country built on the notion of raising yourself up by the bootstraps. The American Dream in spikes.
But hucksterism, roguishness, commercialism and deceit were also part of the Rose playbook. That’s America, too, if we’re being honest. Fame and its attendant commerce favor the shrewd as well as the earnest. Rose was hired this year as a studio analyst for Fox (which also employs me as a game analyst). We are headed toward his home in Santa Clarita in advance of his work in Fox’s Los Angeles studio the next day.
Leaving Las Vegas on I-15 West in a $200,000 car with a bank teller’s son who never attended college and who is engaged to a Playboy model less than half his age, I realize that what’s on this side of the windshield is just as American as what’s on the other side. Great veins of concrete and asphalt stretch before us, throbbing with the pulse of everyday life, as we, like so many others who dreamed to make it in this land, head west for something better.
In the 1920s, when this border town was known as State Line, nothing stood here but a gas station. It was run by a man who, in a nod to his bootlegging business, was known as Whiskey Pete.
In the mid-1950s, Ernest J. Primm took over the gas station and the surrounding 800 acres of desert and added a 12-room motel, a coffee shop and a dozen slots. In 1981 his son Gary took over. Gary built a hotel-casino and, to bait the trap, added one of the world’s tallest, fastest roller coasters and displayed the “death car” of Bonnie and Clyde, complete with 167 bullet holes.
It worked. The place has grown to include three casinos connected by monorail, an arena, a golf course, a convention center and an outlet mall. In 1996 Whiskey Pete’s town on the Nevada-California border was renamed Primm.
"You know I wasn’t suspended from baseball for betting on baseball, right? You know that, right?”
I stifle a smile. I know where Rose is going with this. Technically he is correct, but the man did bet on baseball, a fact he denied for 15 years. But this is how Rose plays the game—any game. The guy runs on spit and vinegar by the tankful. He drops f-bombs like salt from a shaker, out of habit as much as for flavor. He’s going to extract whatever atomic particle of victory he can. “That’s a trait you should take to the grave,” he says. “F--- the other guy. I used to love to show up the other guys. I took that s--- in the minor leagues when I used to run to first base on a walk: ‘Hollywood! Showboat!’ Then all of a sudden they look up and I’ve got 130 runs scored. Take no f---ing prisoners. I think that’s the biggest reason why I’m so popular today—simply because of the way I played.”
I follow his lead. “You mean by the wording of the agreement you signed?”
“Yes. The agreement says there’s no finding that Pete Rose bet on baseball.”
Rose has been banned from baseball since Aug. 24, 1989. As Rose watched on television, then commissioner Bart Giamatti read a carefully vague statement at a New York City press conference: “One of the game’s greatest players has engaged in a variety of acts which have stained the game, and he must now live with the consequences of those acts.”
“Then he sets it down,” Rose says, “and [he’s asked], ‘Do you think he bet on baseball?’ And he says yes. We should have went in there immediately and said, ‘We’re withdrawing.’
“But that’s water over the dam. Hey, Bart did what he had to do. I have no qualms with Bart Giamatti. When you screw up like I screwed up, I’m not going to whine about not being in the Hall of Fame.”
Much less famously, Giamatti took another question that resonates louder today. A reporter asked him if the ban would have any bearing on Rose’s Hall of Fame chances. Giamatti dismissed the link. “You,” he told the baseball writers in the room, “will decide whether he belongs in the Hall of Fame.”
They never did. On Jan. 10, 1991, just 10 months before Rose’s name would appear on ballots mailed to voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, a special committee appointed by the Hall’s board of directors met at a New York City hotel. The committee recommended the addition of clause 3E to the BBWAA Rules of Election: “Any player on Baseball’s ineligible list shall not be an eligible candidate.”
Joe Jackson, who was placed on the ineligible list for his presumed role in the 1919 Black Sox gambling scandal, had appeared on a BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot in 1936. Jackson, a lifetime .356 hitter, received just two votes. Rose never will get that chance.
Rose applied to commissioner Rob Manfred for reinstatement in March and hopes to meet with him as soon as next month. Unless the Hall of Fame retracts clause 3E, Manfred holds the key to both Rose’s reinstatement and his Hall of Fame eligibility. (The commissioner, a lawyer, has appointed his senior adviser John McHale Jr. to gather the history and evidence of the case. Manfred plans to meet with Rose but has not determined when. Rose faces an uphill battle, if only because no one banned for gambling has ever been reinstated.)
Rose is no longer eligible for the writers’ ballot, which is restricted to players who were active during a period beginning 15 years prior to the election. If reinstated by Manfred, he would be considered by the 16-member Expansion Era committee, which meets every three years (next in 2016). “There’s guys in the Hall of Fame that made mistakes, which is fine,” Rose says. “They got a second chance. They got a second chance.”
He remembers the first Hall of Famer he played against: Stan Musial, who was inducted in 1969. Musial is one of 77 enshrined players who were active when Rose played or managed.
“No, it doesn’t get much easier,” Rose says. “I don’t want you to sit here and think before I go to bed at night I’m going to pray that I go to the Hall of Fame. I’m going to pray that I get up tomorrow morning. Seriously. Because I’m 74 years old, and there’s a hell of a lot more behind me than there is in front of me.”
I glance over to him behind the wheel of the Bentley. He is pale. Though it is cool in the car, a bead of perspiration sits on his temple.
“What good is the Hall of Fame going to do me if they put me in after I die? For my kids? Because my kids and my grandkids, I think they have an idea of how happy I would be if I went into the Hall of Fame, and not go in a year after I die where they have to be up there without me.”
The greatest night of Rose’s baseball life was at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium on Sept. 11, 1985, when he broke Ty Cobb’s all-time record for hits. “I got a nine-minute standing ovation,” he says. “Nine f---ing minutes.”
On July 14, Rose will be honored by Major League Baseball before the All-Star Game at Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark as one of the four greatest players in Reds history (along with Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Barry Larkin). Rose, who is barred from working for any club or being in any part of a ballpark or training facility not open to general ticket holders, received permission from MLB to attend the event. Barring reinstatement or Hall enshrinement, the All-Star ceremony in his hometown will likely be the greatest acknowledgment of his baseball life, similar to the one afforded Ted Williams before the All-Star Game in Boston in 1999. Williams, Hall of Fame class of 1966, was 80 years old, six years older than Rose is now. Williams was dead three years later.
“I’ll have my day with the commissioner,” Rose says. “Believe me, I’ll tell him everything I did as a player and a manager 30 years ago and everything I’m doing today. And the chips will fall where they fall. There’s no way he’s not going to understand I’ve reconfigured my life. I’m a good citizen now. I work hard. I support my family.
“You know, in the last 30 years you don’t remember reading about me being in a bar, or being in a fight, or running a red light or beating up some woman or being on drugs. No troubles. I bet on baseball. I f---ed up. And you know all the other stuff? Not guilty.
“But some people want to make me out to be a bad guy. I’m a great guy. I love fans. I’m the best with fans. I’m a regular guy and I make people feel down to earth.” He pauses for a slight grin to crease his face. “I’m a regular guy with a s---pot full of hits.”
“But Pete, first you said you didn’t bet on baseball, and you did. You said you didn’t bet on baseball as a player, and last month ESPN reported that you did. Should baseball be concerned about what’s going to come next from Pete Rose?”
“There ain’t nothing going to come [from] the last 30 years.... My nose is clean. I’m a good citizen. I’m remorseful. I love the game. I love to talk about the game. I’ll present my case to Mr. Manfred, and he’ll know if I’m bulls---ting him or not. He won’t get no bulls--- from me.”
MILE 99. Zzyzx, Calif.
In 1944, a doctor and Methodist minister named Curtis Howe Springer built a health spa in the desert on federal land after making a mining claim. He touted his hot springs and named the place Zzyzx so it would be known as “the last word in health.”
It turned out Springer was neither a doctor nor a minister. He had fabricated nearly everything about his background. The hot springs were pools heated by a boiler. In 1969, the American Medical Association called Springer the King of Quacks. In 1974, he was found guilty of squatting on federal land and evicted. He moved to Las Vegas, where he died on Aug. 19, 1985, 23 days before Rose broke Cobb’s record.
"'Reconfigure your life,'" Rose says. All these years later, the famous words still swirl around his mouth like a bracing rinse. “It took me years to figure out what he meant.”
The 1989 agreement with Giamatti stipulated that Rose could apply for reinstatement in a year. “To think I’m going to be out for a short period of time hurts,” Rose said at the time. In what passed for the only road map back, Giamatti said, “The burden is entirely on Mr. Rose to reconfigure his life in a way he deems appropriate.” What the heck did that mean? Reconfigure his life? The mystery deepened eight days later: Giamatti, 51, dropped dead from a heart attack.
“I finally figured it out,” Rose says. “When he said it, I thought he meant to get away from the bookies and the scumbags that I was hanging around with, which I did. What he meant was to take responsibility for what I did. And when I finally figured out what he meant, that’s when I finally took responsibility for what I did.”
Another popular reading of the map to reinstatement is that Rose needed to clean up his act, not just disassociate himself from bookies and scumbags. On the night of his ban, Rose appeared on a shopping channel hawking memorabilia. He moved about 10 years ago to Las Vegas, the gambling capital of the world. He has regularly showed up in Cooperstown, N.Y., during Hall of Fame induction ceremonies to peddle his autograph. He wrote one book denying he bet on baseball and then another one admitting that he bet on baseball; the publisher released the latter two days after the Hall of Fame voting results were announced. Rose’s critics say he ignored Giamatti’s map.
“‘Well, he still gambles, because he lives in Las Vegas,’” Rose says in the voice of his critics. “Let me tell you something about Las Vegas. A million and a half people live in Las Vegas, and Las Vegas is the only town in the world where my gig works.”
“Why is that?”
“It’s simply because every three or four days half a million people leave and half a million come in. Last year 40 million people visited Las Vegas. And what do most of them have in common? They have money to spend—and they want to see a celebrity.”
Rose used to sign autographs on Las Vegas Boulevard. Then one day it rained. The owner of a memorabilia shop at the Forum Shops at Caesars invited him to sign that day indoors at his place. Business boomed. “And I never went back [outside],” Rose says. “Before the recession hit in 2007, 2008, I used to work at the Forum Shops 15 days a month. And I averaged $20,000 a day [in sales]. That’s $300,000 a month or $3.6 million a year. Obviously now we don’t do that, but we still do O.K.”
Rose has since moved to another shop, signing autographs from noon to 4:30 p.m. as often as 25 days a month. “To me it’s like playing a doubleheader every day,” he says, making sure to point out he does not operate out of a casino, as is often reported. “You don’t sign at a casino. I’m at Mandalay Place, not at Mandalay Bay. I’ve probably signed more free autographs than anybody, and I’ve probably sold more autographs for money than anybody. I know I’m right.
“I do it, one, because I like it. Two, I have to make a living. I’ve got bills. Three, it’s very convenient. I live 1.1 miles from where I work.”
This year Rose will not be signing autographs in Cooperstown during induction weekend. “I just think it’s kind of a cooling-off period,” he says. “I’ve never understood why people get mad when I go to Cooperstown. The press makes it out like I’m the only guy who goes to Cooperstown who’s not in the Hall of Fame. There’s 40 guys up there signing. And believe me, I get big lines up there. It’s fun. It’s a fun village. The Hall of Fame is unbelievable.
“I mean, it should be on everyone’s bucket list.”
Leonard Franklin Slye was born on Nov. 5, 1911, in a tenement building in Cincinnati almost exactly where Rose’s record-breaking hit would land 74 years later at Riverfront Stadium. The boy moved at age seven to a farm in Duck Run, Ohio, dropped out of high school to work with his father at a shoe factory and later moved with him to California, taking blue-collar jobs such as driving gravel trucks and picking peaches.
Slye eventually launched a successful music and acting career. He changed his name in 1938 to something more marketable and later settled in Apple Valley, where he died and was buried in 1998. On his tombstone is carved his birth name, not the name for which he was renowned: Roy Rogers.
Rule 21(d) is merciless, more unforgiving than the Mojave Desert in July. Rule 21(d) was drafted by commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis in 1927 in response not only to the 1919 Black Sox scandal but also to the frequent connections between gamblers and baseball in the first quarter of the century. The rule declares “permanently ineligible” any player, umpire or baseball employee who “shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has a duty to perform.” Rose knew the deal. Everybody does.
The day after our road trip, while Rose is preparing for his studio gig, resplendent in cream-colored ostrich boots and a purple shirt buttoned at the neck, I will ask him if he had a gambling problem when he was banned. “When you lose a career, you have to face reality,” he will say. “I went to Gamblers Anonymous meetings when I was getting counseling. I looked around at the other people. There were people who were stealing from their moms and dads, people embezzling from their companies.... I wasn’t like that. I quit going. It depressed me. What do I have in common with these people? I feel sorry for them and hope they get things fixed, but...”
What would Landis think of America today? Nevada legalized gambling in 1931, four years after Landis wrote 21(d). Thirty-seven states have followed with commercial or tribal gaming. Many major league ballparks feature signage advertising casinos. MLB boasts a partnership with an “official daily fantasy game” in which fans can lay money to win money based on player performance. “We’re battling history here,” Rose says. “I don’t think in the eyes of some people that any kind of gambling will ever be tolerable in baseball because of 1919. When I made my mistakes, I was betting illegally. I haven’t made an illegal bet since 1988. That part of my life is gone.”
The report by MLB investigator John Dowd included testimony from associates that Rose bet on baseball in 1986, when he was player-manager for the Reds. The recent ESPN report added documentary evidence of the claim.
“What’s the story?” I ask him.
“I promised [Manfred] when I applied for reinstatement that I wouldn’t make no statements about anything involving him or reinstatement stuff,” Rose says. “And I’ve lived up to that.
“Hey, listen, I want this commissioner to be the most successful ever. It’s just a shame that I’m not in a position where I could help him, help the game. Because I believe baseball is a better game with me in it. It’s because of the passion I have for the players and the fans.”
Rose steers the Bentley off I-15 onto California State Route 138. We stop for gas on a two-lane stretch of the road. Rose always stops at this dusty, modest station with one pump island. He stops here because he has made friends with the attendant, who could pass for a modern-day Whiskey Pete, with jeans that droop so low as to reveal most of his gray underwear. Rose often brings him signed jerseys and baseballs as gifts. I tell him I know what he can bring his friend the next time he stops for gas.
“Get him a belt.”
Mile 217. Pearblossom, Calif.
In April 1986, while Rose began his last season as a player, British artist David Hockney, on assignment for Vanity Fair, drove out West with a friend. They stopped on California State Route 138 at the western edge of the Mojave Desert as it meets the San Gabriels. It occurred to Hockney that a driver and a passenger see the road in different ways. Hockney used about 750 photographs to create a six-by-nine-foot collage capturing the distinction between those perspectives. Pearblossom Hwy, 11-18th April 1986, #2 hangs in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. An empty road intersects the empty Pearblossom Highway under an empty, brilliant blue desert sky. It is a serene tableau of open space that invites perspectives.
In reality, as more people in more cars dashed between L.A. and Vegas, Pearblossom Highway—with its twisting two-lane stretches never meant for such volume or such haste—became one of the most dangerous roads in the country. It is referred to as Blood Alley and Deathtrap Highway.
He tells you without hesitation that he is a career .303 hitter, including .307 against righthanders, .293 against lefthanders and .302 against 19 Hall of Fame pitchers (his math is only a bit off; it’s .303 against 22 pitchers in the Hall); that of his 4,256 hits he had 10 more on the road than at home; that Musial had 1,815 hits at home and exactly that number on the road; and that the Big Red Machine is the only team in history with a Hall of Fame manager (Sparky Anderson), a white Hall of Famer (Bench), a black Hall of Famer (Morgan) and a Latino Hall of Famer (Tony Perez).
“Are you born with work ethic or is it something you see when you’re around a certain individual?” he asks before answering his own question. “Because my dad was a workaholic. My dad was a hustler. So was I. Because I saw him do it.”
According to his calendar online, Rose signed autographs at Mandalay Place for 25 days in January (the NFL playoffs are good for business) and 22 in March (college basketball). He signed autographs on 113 of the first 181 days of 2015. After a travel day following the All-Star Game, Rose is scheduled to sign for 15 of the next 16 days.
On the night before our trip, Pete was in Washington, Pa., outside of Pittsburgh, for an appearance at the ballpark of the Washington Wild Things, an independent team. Rose spoke to the players before the game. He signed autographs for the fans who purchased the $100 VIP package (“a personal meet and greet and a photo with Rose himself”) or paid $40 to have Rose sign an item they were required to purchase from the team’s merchandise store. The announced crowd was 1,775. It was one of several appearances Rose plans to make at Frontier League games.
“He will go anywhere to make a buck,” wrote Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“What is wrong with him?” Rose says. “Is my family supposed to starve? Because I took a plane for 4 1/2 hours to throw out the first pitch and talk to the players and motivate them and talk to the fans and coach first and go up in the stands and sign autographs for two hours? Is there something wrong with that?”
Mile 267. Santa Clarita, Calif.
On March 9, 1842, Francisco Lopez took a nap under an oak tree in what today is Santa Clarita and then was known as Rancho San Francisco. As the legend goes, Lopez dreamed he was floating in a pool of gold. When he awoke, he pulled wild onions from the ground and, having studied mineralogy at the University of Mexico, immediately recognized the metallic flakes clinging to the roots: gold. It was the first gold discovered in California—six years before the discovery at Sutter’s Mill. Today the so-called Oak of the Golden Dream is a designated California Historical Landmark.
"Like I was telling a guy on the plane," Rose says, "every f---ing day I wake up, something different hurts. Man, it's rough to get old. That's why you've got to keep your mind young. Young players keep you young."
“What if the GM came down to the office and showed you metrics about who to play?”
“I couldn’t manage then.”
What he really misses is working with young players. He dreams of standing behind the batting cage as Reds outfielder Billy Hamilton takes his cuts and helping the struggling hitter keep the ball out of the air.
Rose has managed one game since his ban from Major League Baseball. It was last year, on June 16. He managed the independent Bridgeport (Conn.) Bluefish, a stunt made possible by Ken Shepard, the team’s creative general manager. Shepard, then 49, had spent more than two decades in minor league baseball, starting in Geneva, N.Y., where he once vowed to sleep in the press box until his team broke a losing streak (he slept there 12 nights) and continuing to places such as Wilmington, Del., where he married his wife, Tonya, in a home-plate ceremony that included skydivers in tuxedos and fireworks over the outfield.
Getting Rose to manage a game was a coup. Reporters from national media outlets flocked to Bridgeport. Attendance doubled that night. Rose had his players diving headfirst into bases. The crowd loved it. The Bluefish won the game 2–0.
After the game Shepard drove Rose back to his hotel. “Pete,” Shepard said, “I want to thank you for making my swan song in baseball what it was tonight.”
Rose was dumbfounded. Swan song? He could tell that Shepard, a former college ballplayer who still looked to be in playing shape, loved baseball. He lived in Pennsylvania with Tonya and their two kids, Taylor, 16, and Travis, 7.
“What do you mean?” Rose asked.
“I’m going back home because I have two months to live. I have a rare kidney cancer that they can’t do anything about. I’m going to spend the last two months with my family.”
“And you worked your ass off for this f---ing game?”
“Yes, because it’s my passion. It was my passion to have you here and to have the crowd that we had. And that’s going to be my legacy with this team—that we had the best game we could ever have, the last thing I did for this team.”
The Bluefish scheduled a Ken Shepard Day for Sept. 14. Rose agreed to return to manage the team for the day. On Sept. 5, Shepard died at his home, surrounded by family. The shaken Rose couldn’t go back to Bridgeport. He was replaced as manager for the day by Tonya Shepard.
“I just didn’t want to go through that,” Rose says. “He was such a nice guy, and what kind of night could it be at the ballpark when the guy died the week before? You just never know, man. This guy looked as healthy as can be.”
Rose pulls the Bentley into a rental-car parking lot, where I will pick up a more modest set of wheels to take me to a downtown hotel. Two hundred sixty-seven miles passed quickly. I thank him for generously sharing his ride and his time. He pops the lid of the trunk, where I have placed my suitcase. Then I push the button on the trunk lid to close it, and for the first time I notice his Nevada license plate: hitking.
I have to laugh. It’s the ultimate Rose accessory, better than the cream-colored ostrich boots. What a country. The scrappy kid from Cincinnati who was thrown out of baseball is engaged to a 35-year-old model and drives a Bentley financed by his signature and festooned with a hitking license plate.
Reconfigure his life? Does the road teach us nothing? This is America, land of gambling entrepreneurs, hucksters, singing cowboys, artists and golden dreamers. And that’s just on the drive from Vegas to L.A.
Rose fits. He is roadside America. He is a real-life Hockney collage—one picture made from hundreds, a quirky assemblage that invites different perspectives. Hustler, huckster, dreamer, rogue, commoner, entertainer, legend and ambassador are but a few of the appellations from which to choose, but one that can’t be denied is 74-year-old grandfather looking for a second chance.
I give the Bentley a gentle tap, the way ballplayers do to one another for a job well done or a wish for better luck next time. I watch as the Bentley rolls off, the hitking reminder getting smaller and smaller until I can no longer read it. But I know it’s still there.